Concentrated Power and Versatility: Small Wheel Loaders

By Walt Moore, Senior Editor | September 28, 2010


Volvo L25B
The "compact concept" illustrated: This Volvo L25B has the hydraulic power to handle heavy loads, the trim dimensions to fit through small spaces, and the tight-steering ability to maneuver with minimal ground disturbance.
John Deere
Although hydraulic flow in the compact wheel loader's auxiliary circuits is generally lower than that for a comparably sized skid-steer loader, says Doug Laufenberg, product manager for Deere's compact loaders and attachments, the wheel loader still has the hydraulic muscle to handle a selection of powered tools.

Perhaps you've noticed in the last five years or so that an increasing number of prominent brand names have been showing up on small wheel loaders. Some might say that these "compact" loaders are relatively new to the North American market, the result of marketers noting the success of these machines on congested European jobsites and bringing the concept here.

But, just to set the record straight, small wheel loaders aren't a new phenomenon on this side of the Atlantic. The once-mighty International Harvester, for example, was building small wheel loaders for worldwide consumption in the mid-1960s, and brand names such as Waldon, Swinger, Power Trac and TCM have endured successfully in the U.S. market.

That said, however, there's no denying that the North American market has rediscovered the compact wheel loader in recent years, as evidenced by the expanding number of suppliers and the corresponding rise in sales numbers. And with this rediscovery has come a new generation of machines, which skillfully concentrate the power and versatility of larger loaders into much smaller packages.

Our introduction to the design specifics of today's small wheel loaders came a year or so ago when Volvo loaned Construction Equipment an L20B for an installment of Hands-On Earthmoving. The 56-horsepower L20B features dual-range hydrostatic drive, parallel-lift loader linkage, standard auxiliary hydraulics, choice of proprietary or universal coupler (both hydraulic) and operator amenities that include a multi-function joystick with built-in switches for transmission control and for ground-speed control independent of throttle position.

According to David Morice — heavy-line sales manager for JCB, whose 67-net-horsepower models 407ZX and 409ZX just missed our cutoff — the small wheel loader's market success is establishing a trend toward even more design enhancement, including such features as high-flow auxiliary hydraulics, more precise return-to-dig systems and ride-control.

At the heart of their design, compacts neatly insert conventional wheel-loader features — efficient truck loading, load-and-carry capability, smooth ride, stability, friendly steering, roomy cab and attachment-handling ability — into packages of more application-accommodating size. Wheel-loader buyers simply have more choice now for matching machine size to the needs of a given operation.

Basic designs and features

The size of compact wheel loaders within the horsepower class (65 net and less) that this report addresses varies considerably. Operating weights range from less than 1,500 pounds to more than 12,000 pounds, net horsepower ratings from the low twenties to 65, and hinge-pin heights from around 105 to nearly 130 inches. Despite the wide variations, these machines do, however, exhibit general similarities.

Most, for example, are hydrostatically driven, usually with the combination of a single high-pressure, variable-displacement hydraulic pump and single hydraulic motor. The motor in most units drives through a mechanical gearbox to conventional planetary axles, which often use sealed, wet-disc brakes. Maximum travel speeds may range from the low teens to 25 mph.

Most also employ articulated-frame steering, but with notable exceptions. Gehl and Mustang units (except for the articulated Gehl AL20DX) feature all-wheel steering in conjunction with their one-piece frame. The Deere 244J is a hybrid of sorts, incorporating both articulated-frame steering and rear-wheel steering — a system Deere calls Stereo Steering.

Implement-hydraulic systems are typically gear-pump systems, and an auxiliary hydraulic system (providing flow to powered attachments) often is available. These auxiliary systems, however, usually don't produce oil flows that compare with the output of high-flow systems in large skid-steers. Although this limitation might preclude the use of certain attachments, many hydraulically powered tools can still be used. According to Caterpillar, for instance, its model 904B, with a 22-gpm auxiliary system, can handle trenchers, snow blowers, stump grinders and cold planers.

The question buyers should ask in this regard, though, is whether the auxiliary flow in the specific wheel loader model being considered is sufficient to power attachments intended for use with it.

Attachment use

It's probably safe to say that when the new generation of compacts began appearing, available attachments, in many instances, were limited to pallet forks and specialty buckets — such as multi-purpose, side-dump and stone-sieve types.

Even though many of these machines were equipped (or could be equipped) with a universal (skid-steer) type coupler, manufacturers generally were cautious about recommending the use of skid-steer attachments with compact wheel loaders. Since many compacts use Z-bar loader linkage (or a variation thereof), which typically generates considerably higher breakout force than does skid-steer-loader linkage, the concern was that these stronger machines would structurally overpower attachments designed for skid-steers loaders.

"Placing a skid-steer bucket on a compact wheel loader is not a good idea," says Georg Seyrlehner, Ingersoll Rand's product manager for earthmoving equipment. "Given the wheel loader's greater breakout force, there's potential for damaging both the bucket and the coupler."

As the market has matured, however, more attachments have been developed specifically for the compact wheel loader, further expanding its versatility.

"Specialty buckets and forks still remain the most popular attachments," says product manager David Wolf at Case, "but brooms, augers and ground-conditioning attachments, for example, are now generally available."

The best advice about using skid-steer tools on a small wheel loader is to ask your dealer if a specific attachment's structural strength and (if powered) its hydraulic flow and pressure requirements are a match for the wheel loader in question.

In addition, buyers should be aware of two other considerations related to attachment use with small wheel loaders: coupler type and loader-linkage type. Regarding couplers, some manufacturers equip their compacts with only conventional wheel-loader-type couplers, others use the universal-style coupler, and still others use the conventional coupler, but offer a universal-style adapter.

Loader linkage is typically either standard Z-bar or parallel-lift. The latter automatically keeps pallet forks level from ground level to full lift, which is handy if the machine frequently works with forks. Depending on the specific linkage, however, the parallel-lift configuration may sacrifice a bit of digging force. But not always; some manufacturers claim linkages that competently blend the best qualities of both linkage types.

A final consideration you might have, of course, is whether a compact wheel loader or comparably sized skid-steer loader is the right choice for your operation.

"That's not an easy decision in some instances," says Gehl's Brian Rabe, "because both machines have distinct advantages. I try to help customers think through all aspects of their operation before making that choice."

Average Costs for Small Wheel Loaders
Category (Net HP) Average List Price Hourly Rate1
1Hourly rate = monthly ownership costs (based on price, economic life, and 4.5 percent cost of money), plus monthly operating costs (fuel at $2.33 per gallon and mechanic's wage at $39.33 per hour) divided by 176 hours.
Source: EquipmentWatch
800-669-3282 or
Up to 39 $42,120 $16.15
40–59 $60,306 $21.33
60–69 $63,200 $23.01


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Small Wheel Loaders (65 net horsepower and less)
Supplier/Model HP (net) Operating Weight (lb.)
1Gross horsepower ratings
AR 35 33 5,500
AR 35 Super 33 6,040
AR 50 50 9,149
AR 55 53 8,756
AR 60 60 10,802
AR 65 60 10,360
1030DP 22 3,200
1070M 38 4,360
1090DP 48 6,600
1904DP 48 6,800
B56 56 n/a
221D-II 57.5 12,189
21D-II 51 10,370
904B 52 9,810
C5 27 5,500
C8C 38 9,590
C9 49 9,660
C10B 50 9,660
C14C 59 10,946
C15 58 10,780
C16 63 10,582
244J 59 11,552
AL20DX 20 2,050
AWS 280 39 7,055
AWS 480 59 9,921
AWS 480T 59 11,684
Ingersoll Rand
WL-350 60 11,240
WA30-5 29 6,040
WA50-3 37 8,200
WA65-5 54 10,780
WA70-5 60 11,816
WA80-5 60 12,434
R420S 43 7,450
R520S 49 8,980
ML28 39 7,055
ML48 59 9,921
ML48T 59 11,684
New Holland
LW50.B 55 10,038
PT-425 25 1,387
PT1430 30 2,560
PT-1445 45 3,920
PT-1460 60 5,620
1200 32 1,200
200IND 65 2,000
E804-2 28.6 6,380
E806-2 41.4 8,260
E820-2 59.2 11,600
SKL814 50 8,598
SKL824 50 9,050
SKL834 60 11,240
L20B 56 9,945
L25B 60 10,650
4100 52 6,529
5100 52 7,225
V3-5A 28.6 6,472
V4-5A 36.5 7,376































































































































































Web Resources
Specifications Atlas
Buhler Case
Caterpillar Coyote
Deere Dressta
Gehl Ingersoll Rand
JCB Komatsu
Kawasaki Kubota
Link-Belt Mustang
New Holland Power-Trac
Swinger TCM
Terex Volvo
Waldon Yanmar
* This list includes suppliers encompassed in the broader definition of "compact" wheel loaders, those with up to 110 gross horsepower.